Opinion: FCC's Ruling that Google's Wi-Fi Snooping is Legal Sets Horrible Precedent

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Anyone looking for assurance that the privacy of their home wireless networks would be protected from snoopers by government regulators won't find it in the Federal Communication Commission's recent action against Google.

The FCC fined Google $25,000 for impeding the agency's investigation into reports that Google snooped on Wi-Fi networks as its vehicles gathered information for its maps service.

Although the FCC didn't peek at the info Google gathered from the private wireless nets, regulators in other nations conducting similar investigations have. They found Google had captured e-mail messages, instant messages, chat sessions, romantic exchanges between lovers, Web addresses that could be used to determine a person's sexual orientation and data that could be linked to specific addresses.

Google "Good Faith" Effort

When Google's activity was uncovered in 2010, the company was profusely apologetic in public. But when the time came to find out "the rest of the story" about the data slurping affair, Google entered bunker mode, blocking the FCC's efforts to obtain the information it felt it needed to complete its investigation.`

"We worked in good faith to answer the FCC's questions throughout the inquiry, and we're pleased that they have concluded that we complied with the law" was Google's official line on the FCC's action, which appears to be prompted by frustration at Google's "good faith" during the investigation.

Indeed, Google appears to be confusing "good faith" with doing the minimum under the law to make the FCC go away so Google can continue its business as usual.

It's not "good faith" to refuse to turn over e-mail relevant to an investigation. And the excuse for doing so—it would be burdensome and time consuming—is an insult and totally disingenuous coming from a company that is the King of Search.

(See Related: Is It Legal to Use Firesheep at Starbucks?)

We wonder if Google would be so high-handed about such a request from one of its corporate clients who stored its email in Google's cloud and needed such an e-mail search done to comply with a court order for electronic evidence?

It's not "good faith" to drag your heels when a regulator asks for documents it needs for its investigation and force it to get a subpoena to obtain the documents.

And it's not "good faith" to unilaterally determine it would serve no useful purpose to identify those responsible for instigating an attack on privacy on a global scale.

For its recalcitrance during the FCC probe, Google was fined $25,000—less than petty cash for a company that in the first of this year alone had revenue of $2.89 billion. That outcome surely brought a smile to corporations engaging or planning to engage in slurping Wi-Fi networks to obtain information for their gluttonous marketing demands.

It's also a reminder to anyone with a Wi-Fi network to at least secure it with a password before they start using it.

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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